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The Onion staff

Jordan LaFlure, managing editor of The Onion, left, and Leila Brillson, The Onion’s chief marketing officer, at the satire news website’s office, 730 N. Franklin St. Brillson is part of The Onion’s new parent company Global Tetrahedron.

Anthony Vazquez

New Chicago-based company Global Tetrahedron wants to make The Onion great again

A tech CEO, a disinformation reporter and two social media experts enter a Zoom call. It might sound like the start of a joke, but that’s how four near-strangers bought the Chicago-based satire website The Onion.

The owners formed a new Chicago-based company called Global Tetrahedron and bought The Onion last month from G/O Media for an undisclosed sum. Global Tetrahedron is a fictional company that grew into a “multinational behemoth” in The Onion’s 1999 book “Our Dumb Century.”

The four owners include: Jeff Lawson, co-founder and former CEO of cloud communications group Twilio, who became the The Onion’s majority owner and chairperson; Ben Collins, The Onion’s newly-minted CEO and former NBC News disinformation reporter; Leila Brillson, previously a marketer for TikTok, Disney and dating app Bumble, who is the site’s chief marketing officer and The Onion’s new Chief Product Officer Danielle Strle, former product director of Tumblr.

They connected after news circulated in January that G/O Media — owner of media outlets like The Root, Gizmodo and Quartz — wanted to sell the mock news website. Only Collins and Strle knew each other before.

Collins took notice and in a post on the social media platform Bluesky, he asked how he could buy The Onion.

Brillson saw Collins’ post and messaged him on LinkedIn as “all Millennials do,” and wrote, “ ‘sup dude, how do we buy The Onion?” He introduced her to Strle, and then Collins eventually connected with Lawson.

On April 25, Collins posted on X: “My friends and I now own and run The Onion … We’re keeping the entire staff, bringing back The Onion News Network, and [will] share the wealth with staff. Basically, we’re going to let them do whatever they want. Get excited.”

Midwestern roots

The Onion and its 17 employees will stay in Chicago. Lawson will remain in San Francisco while Collins will move to Chicago from New York. Strle will stay in New York. Brillson, who grew up near Lincoln Park, was already based in Chicago.

Brillson said The Onion’s “second city” base gives it “a Midwestern and everyman sensibility that makes it more relevant to everyone.”

Jordan LaFlure, managing editor of The Onion, is from Indianapolis and started reading The Onion in the fourth grade. He’s lived in the Chicago area since 2009.

“We will remain a national brand, but we want Chicagoans to know we’re in Chicago,” LaFlure said.

He and Brillson spoke while sitting in the writers room at The Onion’s River North office. On the wall hung a gold-framed portrait of a grinning, bespectacled man with the label: “Most Incompetent Coworker Once Again Shines at Halloween Office Party.” Action figures, a plastic cockroach and a box of Girl Scout Cookies sat on the conference room table.

Brillson has been an Onion fan since high school and has clear memories of reading it out loud and laughing — even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when humor was a salve. She read The Onion “religiously” because there was a box with print copies outside the Chicago restaurant where she once worked.

The new owners have grand plans to revive The Onion. Global Tetrahedron’s tongue-in-cheek website lists among its values: “Porcupine Breeding: Our innovation extends beyond ideas that have a clear path to monetization.”

Beyond rodent reproduction, Lawson has said on X that its plan is to introduce "... new products and [get] into new mediums. But more than anything - this is about unleashing the creative team that’s been making you laugh for over 30 years. Letting these amazing writers do what they do best. I can’t wait to see what you pee in your pants.”

Brillson said The Onion was “knee-capped” by its previous owners, G/O Media. The company pigeonholed it as a website rather than a strong multimedia brand with books, a social media presence and big potential for merchandise, live events, partnerships and more, she said.

There are plans to bring back a print edition of The Onion, though it won’t be the weekly it once was. The website will remain free, and Brillson brainstormed ideas such as offering memberships to The Onion and special offers like extra jokes.

“We want to unshackle the writers, find more than one revenue stream, let people do what they’re good at and hopefully profit,” she said.

LaFlure said G/O Media prioritized getting impressions on banner ads. Writers were dissuaded from focusing on creating social media content because it didn’t generate banner ad views. They also couldn’t explore other formats such as longer stories, he said.

According to digital intelligence company Similarweb, The Onion’s “deduplicated unique visitors, worldwide” was 1.2 million in April, down from 1.7 million in April 2022. Visitors reached 1.8 million in April 2021. It also reported that more than 58% of viewers were male and about 45% of its audience were ages 25 to 44.

It’s no surprise that Brillson, previously head of social at Bumble and the former social lead at TikTok, is enthusiastic about The Onion capitalizing on social media.

“An Onion headline is usually the joke, which lends itself so well to social media,” Brillson said. Some favorites include “Black Guy Asks Nation For Change,” referring to former President Barack Obama, “Kitten Thinks Of Nothing But Murder All Day” and “Winner Didn’t Even Know It Was Pie-Eating Contest.”

LaFlure believes the Global Tetrahedron’s long-standing love of The Onion will make a big difference.

“Their willingness to invest in a distressed property and wait for a turnaround seems like a blessing,” he said. “I’m feeling renewed and rejuvenated in a way I didn’t think was possible. We of course want to conquer the world, but getting there will take time.”

No joke

The humor website, self-described as “America’s Finest News Source,” was founded in 1988 by two University of Wisconsin-Madison students, initially as a print publication. The paper moved to New York City in 2000 then relocated to Chicago in 2012.

The Onion has big ambitions but like many media outlets, it faces the daunting challenge of becoming financially sustainable.

For more than two decades, media companies have been decimated by a loss of subscribers and advertising revenue.

Last year, outlets such as The Washington Post and NPR let go of hundreds of journalists. Media layoffs have continued in 2024 with the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Business Insider, Time magazine and others slashing hundreds of jobs. Chicago Public Media, parent company of the Sun-Times, also laid off staff in April.

G/O Media, which bought The Onion in 2019, has seen a whirlwind of sales and restructuring. In March, it sold websites The AV Club and The Takeout. Last year, it shut down Jezebel and laid off 23 staffers before selling the feminist news site to Paste Magazine.

In January, The Onion and other G/O Media staff narrowly averted a strike by reaching an agreement on a new contract. The Onion’s new owners said they will honor the three-year union contract.

LaFlure said under its previous ownership, “the dearth of resources narrowed our ambition. Now, with a better, more sympathetic owner and leadership team, we’re going to be able to increase the scope of what we do. People better watch out.”

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